Bike Shorts: How to Quickly Identify the Difficulty of Any Bike Ride

September 30, 2020 0 Comments

Cyclist biking up a road that winds through hills

“How hard of a ride is that?”

Before tackling a new route, it’s the big question on any cyclist’s mind. The answer is often elusive, though, because they’re not necessarily sure how to quickly identify the difficulty of a bike ride other than hearing stories from other riders. 

But a cyclist’s experience on any ride depends a lot on their weight, age and physical condition. Simply hearing whether one ride was challenging for another cyclist isn’t going to tell you what you want to know.

There are a few things you can quickly check to assess the difficulty of a bike ride. Our friend and cycling mentor, Coach Darryl MacKenzie, has used these tricks for years.

Count the Hills 

The first item on our list of how to quickly identify the difficulty of any bike ride is to count the hills. This is by far the most significant factor when it comes to identifying how difficult a ride will be. A relatively flat double century may be a breeze compared to a 40-mile ride that’s peppered with hills throughout.

Here’s what it comes down to: On average, over the entire ride, how many feet of climbing per mile does the ride have? More than anything else, this will tell you how challenging the route is. Darryl’s guidelines are as follows. 

  • Easy ride: Less than 35 feet of climbing per mile
  • Medium: 35–50 feet per mile
  • Hard: 50–70 feet per mile
  • Very hard: 70–100 feet per mile
  • Hardcore: More than 100 feet per mile

Thanks to modern GPS technology, this is relatively easy to find out. Most trackers now, including Garmins, will report not only distance but changes in elevation. So you can, of course, ride the route with your tracker and find out how many feet you climbed during the ride.

But if you want this information before a ride, there are plenty of great apps out there that allow you to either map your route beforehand or review routes that other cyclists have uploaded. Coach Darryl’s favorite is Ride With GPS, but Garmin Connect and Strava are also popular.

Once you have a ride’s total distance and feet of climbing, simply divide feet by miles and check your answer against Darryl’s guidelines to see what you’re up against.

Watch the Weather and the Winds

Apart from the amount of climbing you’ll do, the elements will quickly help you identify the difficulty of any ride. 

Fluctuations between 70 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit may not matter a whole lot, but there is a world of difference between a brisk 50-degree ride and a sweltering 100-degree slog. Your pre-ride difficulty assessment isn’t complete until you’ve checked the temperature (throughout your whole ride) and planned your cycling clothes accordingly. This can be especially significant in coastal areas such as San Diego — where Darryl lives — where a change of 40 degrees Fahrenheit between the coast and inland areas is not uncommon.

The wind is another factor — and one not as easy to assess without getting out on the road. You can check the wind direction and velocity online, though, and that can give you helpful information. Once winds get above 10 miles per hour, it will significantly change your ride difficulty depending on whether you’re pedaling into or away from the wind. If you see that winds are blowing from the east at 12 mph, and your ride has a major stretch going east, you know your ride will be that much tougher.

Going into a new ride knowing these few key pieces of information can make a major difference in your mental preparation. It may even help you rule out rides you aren’t ready for. Next time you’re considering a new route, don’t just rely on a few stories. Do a little research before you hit the road.


You can find more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website.